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Qualitative Methods in Intergroup Communication  

Maggie J. Pitts

A researcher’s methodological approach is guided by his or her orientation toward three major philosophical assumptions: epistemological assumptions (i.e., what the nature of truth or knowledge is and how it can be pursued), ontological assumptions (i.e., what the nature of reality is and how it can be understood), and axiological assumptions (i.e., what the researcher’s position in the world is and responsibilities to it). Qualitative inquiry is largely guided by methodological beliefs that hold truth and reality as socially constructed, that value subjectivity over objectivity, that explore questions of “how” or “why” over questions of “what,” and that value participants’ voices and experiences. Broadly, qualitative inquiry seeks to describe the world as it is experienced and lived in by the participants under study. With respect to intergroup communication, qualitative inquiry takes an in-depth approach to understanding how members of a community or culture enact the behaviors of everyday life relevant to their group. Qualitative inquiry comprises several methodologies or methodological approaches including ethnography, autoethnography, and ethnography of communication; narrative paradigm and narrative theory; grounded theory; phenomenology; and case studies. Each methodology employs one method or a combination of methods to collect qualitative data. Methods refer to the tools used to collect data for the purposes of informing research and answering research questions. Qualitative methods include tools for the collection of descriptive, largely non-numeric data, including several types of interviews, observations, and interactions, and the collection of meaningful texts, documents, and objects. The collection of qualitative data often requires the researcher to establish a trusting relationship (rapport) with participants and gain an insider’s (emic) perspective of the context for study. In many cases, this is established through prolonged engagement in the field and carefully crafting interview questions that encourage detailed disclosures. Qualitative data are analyzed through a process of dissection, up-close examination, contrast, and comparison between units of data and then putting pieces back together in a synergetic way that represents data holistically. Most qualitative data analysis involves some form of coding: a process of identifying units of data that are relevant to the research questions, assigning them a short label or code, then clustering similar codes into increasingly abstract thematic categories. Researchers establish trustworthiness in qualitative reports through descriptive writing that preserves the voices of the participants, that reflects the social realities of the participants, and that contextualizes results within broader scholarly discourse by tying findings to previous theory or research. Qualitative research reports can take many forms that range from creative forms of writing and representation including poetry and photographs to more conventional forms of writing that fit expectations of social scientific academic journals. When applied to intergroup contexts, qualitative inquiry can make evident the language and communication patterns and social behaviors that distinguish one group from another. Field observations can reveal identity performance and group behavior. Interviews can solicit information from participants about in-group or out-group perceptions and experiences. And the collection and analysis of texts and documents can establish the means through which group identity is preserved and transferred.